In the Indiana Tech women's basketball locker room, there is a board that shows the team's schedule. This season, so many games have been canceled or postponed that the Warriors have crossed out the schedule and written three extra words to remind them of the outlook they need to have to be successful this season:
Anybody. Anytime. Anywhere.
“If we have to do it, that's what we're going to do,” said Warriors freshman Bree Dossen, a Heritage graduate. “Anytime, anywhere, that explains it all. We have nothing else to say to anyone else. ... We're ready to play, every day is a game day.”
In a season contested during a global pandemic, schedule changes are just one of the many challenges college coaches and athletes face before even getting on the court or the field, let alone trying to win the games when they get there. Significant portions of the ebbs and flows of an athletic program's season have been altered this year, and it has taken significant mental fortitude and flexibility to navigate the changes.
Scheduling adjustments are the most common experience across teams, however. The Saint Francis men's basketball team, for example, was eating its pregame meal prior to getting on the bus for a road game against Bethel in December when the Cougars got the call that the game had been postponed.
Indiana Tech men's basketball team, meanwhile, had a game against Madonna last week postponed twice and then canceled.
Despite the pandemic, Warriors guard Grant Smith wasn't expecting the season to go this way.
“It's actually taken a toll on quite a few of us,” Smith said. “It's really just a wild card every day. You have no idea if it's going to be a game, practice, no practice, if you're out for two weeks. You just always try to stay ready and stay fresh.”
The Warriors have weathered that uncertainty, Smith said, by becoming a tighter team off the court. Coach Ted Albert has emphasized that trusting teammates away from the gym is the key to trusting them in games, and the Warriors have leaned in on that notion, forging tighter bonds between players. Smith said that has helped them form a more cohesive unit on the court.
Building that trust this season might be easier said than done because the pandemic has made team get-togethers away from the athletic facility more difficult. Opportunities to get to know teammates have at least partially dried up as players try to avoid interaction in their personal lives as much as possible to minimize their chances of testing positive.
Former Homestead wide receiver Ben Skowronek transferred from Northwestern to Notre Dame for his final season of college football and before the College Football Playoff he said he felt he had made the right decision. His year in South Bend was not the experience he was expecting, though.
“Everybody in the world's been missing stuff, but for me it's just been spending time with my family, spending time with other people's families after games and just building relationships,” Skowronek said. “Also just small things, eating together as a team. We do it with a glass divider in between us. It's just different this year. I miss those meals, just getting to know people, the locker room, it all looks different.”
The Indiana Tech women's basketball team got around some of those problems by buying a screen and a projector so that the players can sit socially-distanced in the gym and watch film. The Warriors did a socially distanced gift exchange over the holidays and also gathered at the Tech multiplex – a space large enough that the players could spread out – to watch a movie.
Of course, group chats and social media also play a role in bringing teams together.
“At first, it was harder for everyone to get to know each other because of COVID,” said Warriors guard Alexis Hill, whose team is 22-2 this season. “But bus rides, we still ride together, social media and text and all that. It took a little longer, but everyone found their group.”
Though they might be missing out on some aspects of the college experience because of the pandemic, most athletes have been willing to make the necessary changes to their daily routines in service of staying COVID-free and keeping their seasons going.
“We're college kids and we're young teenagers and we want to go out and have a lot of fun,” Indiana guard Anthony Leal said in January. “But at the same time we have to be smart because our season is what's most important to us and that's what's on the line if we go out and make a mistake or we test positive or anything like that.
“(We have) to have to sacrifice a lot of things to be here, but in the end it's going to be worth it.”
About this series
This is one of several Sports stories that will explore issues affecting local and state athletics as the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus outbreak being declared a pandemic approaches in March.
The stories are part of “COVID-19: Caught in the Grip,” a Journal Gazette series about changes prompted by the virus – at least temporarily – as individuals and communities rallied to respond and learned to cope.